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I've spent a lifetime with my fingers over violin strings, but I've never thought much about how those strings came to be.
It's a rather complex process, involving quite a few people!
This I discovered when I visited the 45,000-square-foot factory at D'Addario Strings in Farmingdale, New York, where some 400 employees work in three shifts.
It's such a specialized field that D'Addario even makes its own manufacturing equipment in-house, with an entirely different room and department devoted to the design, creation, maintenance and retrofitting of machines for making strings.
String-making in the D'Addario family has been traced to Abruzzi in Italy in the 1600s, when a Donato D'Addario listed his occupation as "cordaro," or string-maker, in his child's baptismal document, according to a book about the company's beginnings. Their small town, Salle, was a sheep herding region, and logically enough, it was sheep herders who made the early gut strings from sheep, hog and horse intestines. In 1905, when an earthquake wiped out the town, Carmine (who later took the name Charles) D'Addario moved his family to New York. In 1918 he started making strings with his brother-in-law, Rocco, and officially established C. D'Addario and Co. in in 1930s. When his son, John Sr. joined the business, he changed the name to C. D'Addario and Son. The current CEO of the company is John Sr.'s son, Jim D'Addario and several D'Addarios in the next generation are active in the company.
In making a string for a music instrument, the idea is to wind it, to give it more mass, but to keep it flexible so it can vibrate properly. If a string is not flexible, the harmonics will not be in tune (they will be sharp in relation to a true harmonic) and the string will not respond easily to bowing, said Fan Tao, researcher in the bowed-strings department at D'Addario. The latter happens because the bowing action forces the string to vibrate with all of its vibrating modes being harmonic, but if the string does not want to vibrate naturally that way, the string is slow to respond.
"The fundamental concept for making strings hasn't changed in 300 years," said Fan, whose upstairs office is more like a science lab, filled with custom equipment such as a high-precision string winding machine. "The only difference is that now we have automated machines and more materials to use for the core and the wrap, such as synthetic materials."
Strings for plucked instruments, such as the guitar, banjo and mandolin, are made differently from strings for bowed instruments, such as violin, viola, cello and bass.
For plucked strings, "After you pluck, that's all the energy you put into that note," Fan said. You want that vibration to last. But with a bowed string, the vibrations need to be a little more subdued. That's where something called "damping" comes in. A guitar string would have low damping, so it can ring and ring. An all-metal string fits the bill just fine.
A violin string, however, needs higher damping. This explains why traditional strings were made with animal gut -- it has high damping qualities. For non-gut strings, the damping now is achieved with modern synthetic materials.
Have you ever put new strings on your violin, and found them to be a little too bright until they are "broken in"? Part of that breaking-in process is a natural damping of the string as it breaks down.
"Part of that breaking in period is they go dead," Fan said. The sweat and salt in your skin starts the corrosion process in the string. "Once you put the string on the instrument, it starts accelerating the corrosion of the string," whether you are playing it or not.
The all-metal "E" string actually has no damping in it. In a way, the violin is like two instruments, the "E" having a different quality than the "A," "D," and "G" strings. The sound of that "E" can be a deal-breaker for some people, Fan said.
"Many cellists play cello because they don't like the high, screechy sound of the "E" string," Fan said.
Lyris Hung, Bowed Strings Product Manager for D'Addario, took me on a tour of the factory floor, where up to 7,000 strings a day are made for bowed instruments such as for violins, violas, cellos and basses, under the brands Zyex, Helicore, Prelude, NS Electric, Pro Arté and Kaplan. Around 500,000 per day are made for fretted instruments like guitars, mandolins, banjos, etc.
Fretted strings -- for guitar and such -- are very simple. They are typically unwound, or perhaps they have one winding. That's why they are much less expensive to buy. Bowed strings are more complicated, involving more windings and more time.
String cores use only three basic materials: steel, synthetic (polymers) and natural gut. However, the cores can be made in different ways; for example, you can make solid steel cores, or stranded steel cores.
Then various materials are wound around the core. For example, we saw a string in which seven spools of very fine steel strands were being woven. "It gives an added tonal dimension" to have so many different kinds of metal vibrating together, said Lyris. The winding also gives the string more elasticity.
We also watched the creation of a Zyex bass string, which can have up to five wrappings around the core, each winding taking 30 seconds. All of this is done by machine, but with someone constantly changing, threading, and working the machine. It takes a worker a minimum of two weeks to be trained on one of the machines, Lyris said. Though their machines are highly automated, there is still a huge amount of skilled human input required, and some machines have dozens, even hundreds of parameters to set up. It takes a minimum of two weeks to train someone to operate a machine -- push buttons, load and unload strings and wire, etc. -- but it takes far longer, even years, to become a master string maker.
At the end of each string, the windings are spread out so that they can apply "silking," that colored wrap at the end of strings which is both decorative and practical. The silking makes it possible to identify the string and to allow to be thin enough to wrap around a peg. In the case of D'Addario strings, the "silking" color denotes the string note on top and the brand of the string on the bottom.
D'Addario puts a damping compound in all strings so that when you take the strings out of the package, they sound close to the way they should sound, Lyris said. This cuts down on the break-in time for a string. "Our strings tend to be warmer and more responsive, out of the box," she said.
Hundreds of spools or metal wire of different kinds and thicknesses sit in a wall of cubbies. In order to wrap properly around a string, some wires have to be flattened. Another wall is devoted to flattening machines that basically press the wire. The flattening process can make the metal brittle, so after it is flattened, it must be annealed, requiring yet more machinery.
When the string is finally finished, it may be sorted to sell with a set, or sold separately, wrapped and sealed airtight in food-grade plastic, and put in packaging that D'Addario prints on its own four-color presses.
Fan said that understanding the physics of how strings works has helped his violin playing. Of course, the physics can't teach you muscle control, but it can tell you a lot about sounding point and bow speed.
"Playing the violin is really hard, but it's not a mystery. If you do the rights things, good things happen. If you do the wrong things, bad things happen," Fan said. "Understanding the physics of the violin and bowing has taught me a lot."
For example, why does a beginner (or anyone!) tend to make scratchy sounds with the bow? Here is how Fan explains it:
You may be aware that all the technical work on Violinist.com is handled by Robert Niles, who also happens to be my husband.
You may not know, however, that Robert once was a Pirate of the Caribbean -- at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. He actually worked there at a number of attractions for years, and from that experience he caught the theme park bug. At the same time as we started Violinist.com, he also started a website called ThemeParkInsider.com.
I tell you all this because I want you to buy his book, Stories from a Theme Park Insider, an e-book which just came out a few weeks ago. It's a compilation of his best stories from when he was working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and he really captures the funny, the unexpected and the poignant nature of one of the world's more unusual jobs.
The price is right, $3.99. If you like it, well…please give it five stars, possibly write a review, and also tell 30 of your closest friends to download it! :) And now that we know how to do e-books, we may just do some violin-related ones. But only if this one sells like crazy.. (hint, hint)
So if it sounds like fun reading for you, Download a sample chapter [PDF] for free, or just buy a copy, here's the info:
Revisit Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles' coverage from Canada of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition, including her interview with gold medalist Marc Bouchkov.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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